December 31, 2013

Review: The Republic of Thieves

Republic of Thieves Book Three in the Gentleman Bastards sequence
By Scott Lynch
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy
Read my review of Red Seas Under Red Skies

RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES came out in 2007, a little over six years ago. The one-two punch of the hilarious, complicated, and inventive THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA and its sequel had fans eagerly awaiting the third book in the Gentleman Bastards series.  (Especially because it promised a reunion between Locke and his love Sabetha.)  Now, it's finally here and almost guaranteed to be disappointing because there has been so much time to anticipate it and wonder about what would happen.

I breezed through THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES, happy to be reunited with Locke and Jean and see them get out of their last scrape and straight into a new one.  As always, the story alternates between an episode in their past and their present.  I quite enjoyed the past, which reveals how Locke fell in love with Sabetha and wooed her.  I found those sections funny and liked how the ending forced the Gentleman Bastards to rely on their developing skills.  I also liked the development of Locke and Sabetha's romance, which is complicated by Sabetha's resentment of Locke's place in the gang.  They're similar in skill, but Sabetha is the outsider and Locke is the leader because of their sexes.

The present plot, which involves Locke and Jean trying to rig an election and Sabetha working for the other side, was less satisfying.  Yes, I liked spending time with the characters, but . . . there is no heist here, no clever unfolding of tricky plans.  The trickiest thing that happens in THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES is about on par with Locke not even trying in one of the first two books.  The biggest revelation occurs in a bit of awkward exposition.  There's barely any plot here.  My disappointment isn't so much from over anticipation as THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES not much resembling the first two books.  Not to mention there's no danger.  Each side is forbidden from killing the other.  If Locke and Jean win, they get to leave with protection.  If they lose, they just get to leave.  Those are possibly the lamest stakes ever.

I'll be back for the fourth installment in the Gentleman Bastards series.  The ending of THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES remembers that there is a series arc and that danger is tantalizing.  The past bits are good and there's plenty of fun banter.  It's just that the main plot of this entry is oddly airless.  On a whole, this book is a nice diversion for an afternoon, but not what I expected from a favorite series.

December 30, 2013

Review: Fangirl

Fangirl By Rainbow Rowell
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin (Macmillan)
Review copy

FANGIRL: the novel that launched a thousand laudatory reviews.  It's a little difficult to be just one more, sometimes.  If you haven't heard about it, FANGIRL is the story of Cath, a freshman in college.  She's long found solace in fandom and has become a popular writer of Baz/Simon fanfiction (basically Harry Potter).  She's had some difficulty in her home life: her mother left when she and her sister were eight and her father is bipolar and sometimes has breakdowns.  Now at college, she doesn't even have her twin by her side.  Wren decided to room with someone else at the last minute.

The first reason FANGIRL is easy to love is that its very relatable.  Freshman year is a liminal time.  Some people spend it getting drunk, like Wren.  Some people spend it huddled in their dorm room, like Cath.  Often times things happen to shock people out of their patterns, which of course happens in the book.  The second is that FANGIRL is a total female fantasy.  Cath is hippy but still considered attractive, has no less than two potential love interests, is adored by a professor, and finds fame online.  Her college life is, in many ways, the life other socially anxious internet dwellers dream of.  There are some downsides (anxiety) (parental abandonment), but on the whole it is just plain fun to spend time in Cath's life.

FANGIRL is the cherry on top of a wonderful year for Rainbow Rowell.  She's really arrived as an author, and I am looking forward to her next book.  This book is a great choice for anyone going to college, or who has been to college, or who didn't go and wants proof that college quite often bites the monkey.

December 27, 2013

Review: The Engineered Throne

The Engineered Throne By Megan Derr
Available now from Less Than Three Press
Review copy

When this book popped up on Netgalley, I was intrigued by the main character's job.  You don't see many military engineers in fantasy or romance.  And let me tell you, THE ENGINEERED THRONE delivers on that promise.  Vellem's career is quite important to both the plot and his own decisions.  The book will certainly make you think about the importance of having someone around battles who can take bridges down, put bridges up, plan a demolition, and such.

The other point of interest was arranged marriage.  Let's face it, during the holidays I want to read fun books.  Arranged marriages are a classic trope.  Vellem is a war hero, which makes him high profile enough to marry the youngest prince of a neighboring country in order to seal a peace treaty.  However, he might not get to marry Perdith, because someone is trying their hardest to assassinate Vellem.

Despite being 312 pages, I felt that some parts of the story were glossed over.  Vellem starts a dangerous journey, then the book cuts to him arriving at his destination.  Vellem and Perdith are at first uncomfortable and unsure whether to trust each other, then they're totally into each other.  Other parts worked better.  There is a core of grief and rage to THE ENGINEERED THRONE that works very well.  If you pay attention to the title and blurb of the book, it is easy to guess what's coming.  But the book works to make it painful, not just a rote plot point.

I enjoyed THE ENGINEERED THRONE quite a bit.  It was a quick read with lots of action and a touch of romance.  Vellem was an interesting character to spend time with - excellent at his chosen profession, but a bit at sea elsewhere.   It was fun to see him earn a happy ending.

December 24, 2013

Review: Roomies

Roomies By Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
Review copy
Read my review of The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life

I love that the explosion of sexy reads about twentysomethings is starting to bring about interest in books that are about life in college, or just before college, without necessarily being about an intense romantic relationship.  I wish there'd been more books about this time of life back when I was in college.

ROOMIES is about the last summer before college for the alternating narrators, EB and Laura.  EB a New Jersey girl is excited to move across the country to San Francisco and hopes to make friends with her roommate because, well, she won't know anyone else.  Laura hoped for a single because she's moving out of her house with five siblings and just wants some alone time.  EB's perky email introducing herself was not what Laura hoped for.

It's a great premise for a novel, because the roommate relationship is such a unique one and so very variable.  You could be best friends with your roommate and hate living with them.  You could hate them but think they're great to live with because they never eat your food or steal your makeup.  Or anywhere in between!  Pre-move-in email exchanges are basically the only thing you know about the person you'll be living with for a year before you make that plunge.  (Unless you decide to room with a friend when you go off to college.)  Plus, it's a situation ripe for misunderstandings.  Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando clearly had a great deal of fun playing with the idea.

I found it a little hard to warm to EB and Laura at first because they were both determined to think the worst of each other based off of some pretty ungenerous readings of each other's emails.  Then I started really getting into their stories.  Laura's is the simpler one.  She's preparing to move away from her close family, which is difficult even though it's something she really wants, and maybe starting a relationship with a coworker.  Her coworker is black, and ROOMIES does a great job of dealing with how people act like they don't notice that but do.  EB, meanwhile, is having to deal with her mom's affair with a married man, the new guy she likes despite having a boyfriend, and getting up the courage to talk to her estranged gay dad who lives in San Francisco.  It is to the book's credit that it refers to this storyline as a soap opera but doesn't let it get too overly dramatic.

I really loved how many relationships are woven into ROOMIES.  There is the girls' growing, fraught relationship, of course.  But both of their family relationships are explored, as are their relationships with boys, and their relationships with their best female friends, all of which are changing because going off to college is a huge transition.  It's very realistic, which helps keep ROOMIES moving smoothly along instead of feeling overstuffed.

I think ROOMIES will be a big hit with contemporary fans and anyone who is making their own transition to college.  It's very positive while not ignoring potential negativity, and often just sweet and funny.  Just don't be fooled by the cover: they don't make it to the dorm room until the very end.  And you'll have to read the book to find out whether EB and Laura decide to live together after all.

Be sure to visit on January 10th when I post my own Roomies story and give away a copy of ROOMIES!

December 23, 2013

Mini-Middle Grade Reviews on a Monday

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
By Kathi Appelt
Available now from Atheneum BFYR (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy
Read my review of Keeper

The eponymous scouts are Bingo and J'miah, raccoon brothers keeping an eye on the Sugar Man Swamp from an old, overgrown DeSoto.  They're to wake the Sugar Man, a Yeti-like figure, if the swamp is in trouble.

It quickly becomes apparent that the swamp is in trouble.

Kathi Appelt weaves together a tale of humans, animals, and cane sugar in a sweet, down-home voice perfectly suited to the material.  It's so beautifully descriptive that I wanted illustrations even as I was happy that everything was left to me to imagine.  It's funnier and less dark than her other books, although it still touches on important issues.  THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP is definitely worthy of that National Book Award Finalist medal on its cover.

Listening for Lucca Listening for Lucca
By Suzanne LaFleur
Available now from Wendy Lamb Books (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

LISTENING FOR LUCCA is the tale of Siena, who has just moved to a beach house with her parents and younger brother Lucca, who doesn't talk.  She quite likes their new hometown, but she and Lucca both suspect that their house is haunted.

I really enjoyed LISTENING FOR LUCCA.  This is a quiet, simple book.  The fantasy elements are likewise quiet - these are fairly passive ghosts.  Thus, LISTENING FOR LUCCA reads almost like a contemporary.  The family is well realized, both agreeing to let Lucca talk in his own time and individually worrying about how to convince him to talk.

I suspect lots of readers will identify with Siena, who struggles with fitting in and being a patient big sister.  I think this novel will appeal to fans of Mary Downing Hahn.

In Search of Goliathus Hercules In Search of Goliathus Hercules
By Jennifer Angus
Available now from Albert Whitman & Company/Open Road Media
Review copy

Henri is a normal nineteenth-century boy until he goes to live with his aunt.  There he starts to realize that he can speak to insects.  But he runs away to the circus to escape his aunt's sinister neighbor, Mrs. Black, who might know his secret.

I liked how this story combined a mystery about Henri's father's disappearance, the mystery of Mrs. Black's motive and powers, and an adventure about life in the circus.  There is, of course, a search for a large insect known as the Goliathus Hercules as well.

In the end, I had niggling questions remaining about how some of the magic worked, but I did like IN SEARCH OF GOLIATHUS HERCULES.  Few books are so passionate about the insect world, and Jennifer Angus clearly knows her subject.

Magic Marks the Spot Magic Marks the Spot
Book One of The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates
By Caroline Carlson
Illustrated by Dave Phillips
Available now from HarperCollins
Review copy

I do enjoy books about pirates!  MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT tells of Hilary Westfield's journey to become a pirate, complicated by the facts that she's a girl and the daughter of an admiral.  I have always enjoyed girl-crossdresses-as-a-boy stories, but that is not this one.  Hilary is determined to do it all as a girl.

MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT is a very fun story, filled with a search for treasure and mysterious thieves and unexpected magic.  I'm not sure it's a great start to a series, because it stands very well on its own.  There are no loose ends here.  The only real problem is that the chapters end with bits of letters and newspaper articles.  This would be a nice way to catch up with what's going on with other characters, except at least half of the letters are in a little cursive font on a darkened background.  It's hard to read as an adult who was taught cursive - I can definitely see it tripping up kids.

The Savage Lands The Savage Lands
Book Three of Tarzan
By Andy Briggs
Available now from Open Road Media
Review copy

I read the original TARZAN by Edgar Rice Burroughs back when I was a kid and Disney's Tarzan came out.  I must say, I never was a real Tarzan fan.

In many ways, I like the idea of a rebooted Tarzan, with modern technology and such.  In execution, Andy Briggs' THE SAVAGE LANDS didn't do anything more for me than the original.  I did like that Jane is very active in the series.  Why, the first thing she does is save a man with a well-timed machete swing.  You can certainly try this book with the young action/adventure fan in your life.

December 21, 2013

Ned Vizzini, December 19, 2013

I don't often mention it when authors die on my blog.  I'm afraid that I'll miss an author and insult someone and often I don't feel like I have anything to say that isn't being said better by someone else.  I'll not say much here.

Ned Vizzini's books spoke to so many of the difficulties that many people, young adult and adult adult, struggle with every day.  He spoke about his own struggles with depression.  His words have helped, and will continue to do so.  The manner of his death does not change the way he lived his life.  He wrote and spoke about mental illness, one of society's last remaining taboos.  He did not shove it under the rug, pretend that it was easy.  If only it was easy.

My condolences to his family and friends.

And for any of my readers struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, my best wishes go out to you. 

December 16, 2013

Review: Charming

Charming Book One of the Pax Arcana
By Elliot James
Available now from Orbit (Hachette)
Review copy

I loved the premise of CHARMING.  The protagonist, John Charming, is from the Charming family - a long line of monster hunters who inspired the various Prince Charmings in fairytales.  However, the book wasn't quite what I expected.  It's a fairly typical kitchen sink urban fantasy setup with nary another fairytale related character in sight.  I started reading the book to find out where Prince Charming came from, and that has absolutely zero to do with what actually happens.  Now, as urban fantasy goes it wasn't bad, just not what I expected when I started.

"Wasn't bad" is actually about the sum of my reaction to CHARMING.  I think the Pax Arcana series will grow into something I really like.  John has been a loner for a long time, but he ends up working with a group of monster hunters who have been together awhile.  I liked their camaraderie and personalities and look forward to seeing John really become a part of the group.  There's a lot of potential here for a fun series with a strong ensemble, but the first book does have the burden of having to provide all of the set up in addition to a story.

CHARMING combines a case plot with a strong romantic plot - stronger that I've seen in most urban fantasies with male protagonists.  Everything starts when a blonde walks into John's bar.  That blonde is Sig, a Valkyrie.  As the two work together to figure out what's up with the vampires lately, they start feeling an attraction.  The problem: Sig already has a boyfriend.  John's pursuit of an attached lady could be off-putting, but author Elliot James simplifies the potential conflict by making Sig's current squeeze loathsome.  However, Sig herself is strongly moral and loyal.  She's neither going to throw over her guy without good reason nor cheat on him. 

Again, what I really have to give props to is the ensemble.  For instance, two of the people on Sig's team are humans who stumbled into the whole monster fighting thing by accident: an exterminator and a priest.  It's totally reasonable that they would happen upon things that go bump in the night, be traumatized by it, and keep fighting.  The priest, Molly, was a particular highlight in all sorts of ways that I won't spoil here.

For now, I'd stick to renting CHARMING from the library if you're into slightly silly, slightly generic, slightly romantic urban fantasy.  Still, I think this is a series to watch.  I'll definitely be reading DASHING.

December 11, 2013

Review: Ascension

Ascension The first Tangled Axon novel
By Jacqueline Koyanagi
Available now from Masque Books (Prime Books)
Review copy

I was excited about ASCENSION when everyone started talking about it on Tumblr.  If there's one thing blogging has taught me, it's that there is a demand for stories with diverse characters.  Along comes a science fiction tale with characters of varied ethnicity and sexualities, plus the protagonist has a debilitating chronic illness.  Unfortunately, you can't build a story on diversity alone.

ASCENSION suffers from a serious lack of plot, first of all.  There is a major, devastating event at the beginning and a flurry of activity at the end.  Between that, not much happens.  And the ending isn't enough to save it.  The reveals about the true nature of the Tangled Axon were things I'd figured out long before, much like main character Alana's older sister Nova.

The sororal relationship between Alana and Nova was my favorite part of the book.  They have very different outlooks and goals in life, which leads to quite a bit of friction.  At the same time, they love each other unquestionably and do quite a bit to keep the other safe.  The other relationships in the novel didn't move me as much.  Most of the Tangled Axon crew are underwritten and the romance is uneven.  Alana thinks Captain Tev is hot as soon as she sees her after she stows aboard.  She starts thinking about how she's falling in love before they have any real personal conversations, which just didn't work for me.  It was mostly Alana pining instead of real interaction, and I need interaction in my love stories.

Good worldbuilding could've saved ASCENSION.  But honestly, I couldn't tell you much about this spacefaring future.  There's a medical company, Transliminal, that's quite powerful, which is plausible.  Nova is a sort of religious witch, although I never fully understood how her powers worked.  Alana is an engineer in space for the first time, and while she's certainly fascinated by the Tangled Axon, we never really get scenes of her repairing or otherwise working on the ship.  How does space travel work in this universe?  Who knows.

It felt like ASCENSION wanted to be a romance novel above all else.  But the romance style didn't work for me, and that left the science fiction and action-adventure elements too thin on the ground.  ASCENSION is more for people who like their science fiction heavy on the philosophy.  I'm sure there is an audience for this book, but sadly I am not it.  I do, however, applaud Jaqueline Koyanagi for developing a diverse future.  That is a good start.

December 10, 2013

Review: Day One

Day One By Nate Kenyon
Available now from Thomas Dunne Books (Macmillan)
Review copy

DAY ONE takes a familiar premise (man vs. machine) and centers in on the very beginning.  John Hawke is interviewing James Weller, a tech mogul who left his former company under acrimonious circumstances and claims that he has a doozy of a story to tell.  It's strange that he would tell it to Hawke, a disgraced journalist (and hacker, of course).

I thought DAY ONE did a terrific job with the horror elements.  Several scenes are terrifying, and the expanse of the antagonist is daunting.  Even the coffee makers have turned against humanity, under the control of Doe.  I did feel that the protagonists sometimes made terrible decisions.  For instance, they decide that the best way to travel through New York is the subway tunnels.  They had a few reasons for that, but none of them make up for forgetting that subways tunnels are full of trains.  Who sets themselves up to be stuck in a small, dark area with a massive, fast machine that doesn't like you?

Some of that may come from the fact that I never really liked Hawke.  I thought that some of the other members of his party were more interesting.  Hawke is driven by the need to get back to New Jersey, where his wife and son might be in danger from their neighbor.  Obviously, everyone understands the need to be with and protect family.  But I just had to grit my teeth every time Hawke made a justification for not moving away from a scary guy who clearly has creepy designs on his pregnant wife.

Basically, I liked the action but thought that the attempts to make me bond with the protagonist fell flat.  I never cared about his redemption as a family man, I cared about these people escaping murderous technology!  I'd stick to checking this one out from the library.

December 9, 2013

Review: More Than This

More Than This By Patrick Ness
Available now from Candlewick (Llewellyn)
Review copy

A boy is in the ocean, tossed about and eventually bashed upon the rocks.  He then wakes up in his childhood home in England, not America.  From there, he begins to piece together who he is and what's going on.  Every time he dreams, he sees his memories.  Thus, he remembers that his name is Seth and assumes he's in hell.

You see, something terrible happened to Seth's younger brother back when their family lived in England.  Seth has felt guilty his entire life.  He's also struggling with memories of his friends and his secret boyfriend.  Then his ruminations are interrupted when he comes across two other people.

I flip-flopped back and forth between really liking MORE THAN THIS and being meh about it.  I felt that as more was explained, the book became sillier and less appealing.  But then Ness partially saved it by upping the ambiguity about whether the supposed explanation for what was happening was correct.  And honestly, I prefer to believe that it isn't, because it really doesn't make much sense.

However, there were several aspects that worked wonderfully.  The flashbacks are all top-notch, particularly the ones dealing with Seth and Gudmund's relationship.  Regine and Tomascz are good characters, although noticeably less developed than Seth.  (How can they not be, when the entire first part of MORE THAN THIS is his inner monologue?)  They both have their own traumas that they are working through.

MORE THAN THIS is an unusual book, with some sections that are very philosophical and others that are horrific.  It's wonderfully written, as can be expected of Ness.  I don't think it's his best book.  However, while it might be messy, but it is also ambitious, and I always respect ambition.  I think the best parts of MORE THAN THIS outweigh its weaknesses.

December 5, 2013

Review: Hushed

Hushed By Kelley York
Available now from Entangled
Review copy

When I wrote about MADE OF STARS, I mentioned that I'd long been interested in Kelley York's first book, HUSHED.   What then pops up on Netgalley but HUSHED, with a new cover?  I seriously couldn't resist the bonkers summary.  Archer has been killing people to protect his best friend Vivian, because he once failed to protect her when they were younger.

I'll admit that I never quite warmed up to Archer.  There's a real sense of unreality to the premise, but the book was written more realistically than I expected.  Archer definitely has psychological trauma, but I never really fell into the revenge fantasy.  Maybe I'm just maturing.  It didn't help that I had very mixed feelings about the Archer and Vivian friendship.  Vivian eventually becomes outright villainous, but at the beginning she was much less manipulative than I expected.  She's a little shallow, but that's a minor character flaw comparatively.  Archer, meanwhile, is a full blown Nice Guy.  He thinks that if stays by Vivian's side (and kills enough people), then she'll realize he's been the perfect guy for her all along.

However, I liked Evan quite a bit.  Evan is the catalyst in HUSHED.  He's a new student at the local university who first meets Archer when he's alone on campus.  Their budding relationship forces Archer to look more critically at his relationship with Vivian.  It also starts him towards the realization that you can't just kill people.  Evan isn't just an instrument of the plot, however.  He has his own interests and family, and his ethical dilemmas about Archer become increasingly important as the story moves on.

I didn't love HUSHED as much as I expected, partially because it wasn't as campy as I was expecting.  It suffers a little from wanting to have its cake and eat it too, to portray Archer's crimes as real, unjustified crimes and still have him be the hero of the story.  It's pretty entertaining and there is interesting psychological and character work, but it's a little rough.  There are definable, understandable reasons for Archer and Vivian's behavior, but there was something about the story that kept me separate from them instead of buying in.  The sweet romance between Archer and Evan was a nice counterpoint to the murder and associated darkness, and it was easy to see how that would affect Archer so deeply.

In the end, I still thought HUSHED was worth reading.  It was certainly different from the other books I've been reading lately.

December 4, 2013

Review: The Real Boy

Book Cover By Anne Ursu
Illustrations by Erin McGuire
Available now from Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins)
Review copy

I think I have a weakness for stories about magician's apprentices.  Not that Oscar is a real apprentice.  He works in the basement of a magic shop, chopping and storing herbs, and other menial work.  He knows herbs and cats, but not people.

Then Oscar is thrust into the task of running the shop by himself, interacting with patrons and offering the right bit of magic to solve their problems.  It's not his strong suit.  Luckily, a fellow apprentice, Callie, agrees to help him understand people and run the store.  Although it is not said in the text, since THE REAL BOY is set in a fantasy land, Oscar is somewhere on the autism spectrum.  I thought this was well done, but I'm not sure whether it would work as well with the intended audience.

I do enjoy the fable-like style of THE REAL BOY.  Oscar and Callie live on the only island in the world with magic, but they soon discover that there are consequences of magic.  They also learn that things aren't always what they appear to be, nor are people.  On the other hand, I had issues with how the plot plays out.  It doesn't make much sense when you think about it, even if it makes sense with the themes of THE REAL BOY.

The pictures by Erin McGuire are terrific.  They leave the characters' ethnicities ambiguous, so that kids can see themselves reflected in the pictures.  They also match the descriptions in the text well.

I thought THE REAL BOY was wonderful, but I'm not sure that its appeal will come across fully to younger readers.  It's not quite as accessible as BREADCRUMBS.

December 3, 2013

Review: Third Lie's the Charm

Third Lie's the Charm Third book of The Liar Society
By Lisa and Laura Roecker
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy
Read my review of The Lies That Bind

Lisa and Laura Roecker bring their series The Liar Society to a close with a book that racks up the body count while delivering humor, romance, and mystery.  Be warned: minor spoilers for the first two books follow.

Kate Lowry has destroyed the Brotherhood, and she's feeling good about that, even if it didn't turn out exactly how she planned.  Now she just has to destroy the Sisterhood and her revenge for her best friend Grace's death will be complete.  Then she ignores a call in the pursuit of her goals, and another classmate ends up dead.  Kate has a new case to investigate in addition to her continued plans of sabotage.

I love Kate, who has a very masculine character arc.  She's willing to give up love in order to pursue vengeance.  And, well, if multiple guys are going to pursue her, she is going to worry about it when there aren't dead bodies on the ground and she's going to mock any and all displays of testosterone.  Kate is in way over her head, but she's been that way from the start and refuses to give up now.

I've just had so much fun with this series.  It is completely over-the-top with the almost all powerful secret societies, but that's part of what makes it so fun.  That craziness is anchored by the great heroine and her complicated relationships with friends, boys, and other classmates.

THIRD LIE'S THE CHARM did have some structural issues.  Things fall into place way too simply at the end of the novel because this is the end of the series and things have to wrap up.  There's a detour to a bizarrely short camp that is funny, but in the end could have been more relevant.  The plotting just isn't as neat, which is a shame since that's been a strength of this series.

But the characters and their interactions are as wonderful as ever, which makes the book worth it.  THIRD LIE'S THE CHARM and its two predecessors are excellent choices for young adult mystery fans.

December 2, 2013

Review: All the Truth That's in Me

All the Truth That's In Me By Julie Berry
Available now from Viking Juvenile (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I love the cover for ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME.  It's stark, striking, and a beautiful fit for the contents within.  Judith and her best friend disappeared from their village four years ago, and Judith recently returned with half of her tongue cut out.   Her friend's body was found years ago.  Now Judith faces all sorts of suspicion, but can't respond.

I fell into the rhythms of this book almost immediately.  ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME is told from Judith in the first person, although many of her words are directed towards her crush, Lucas.  Her words are immediate, but have a poetry to them.  It's also an interesting head to be in - Judith's experience has aged her in some ways, but it's also kept her isolated from society since she was twelve.  It's a hard head to be in, because life has not been kind to Judith.  However, things begin to change for her.

ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME was a tense read.  As things change, I wasn't sure if everything would turn out alright or if it would only get worse for Judith.  Judith has to calculate the risks of what might improve her life and her control of it, and what might make it worse for her.

I found that the setting enhanced the story.  Although no specifics are given, it is presumable colonial America.  Religion has a great deal of power in the story, and there are local elements that aren't friendly with the townspeople, who have limited access to firearms.  Much of the difficulties Judith faces are because it is assumed that she is no longer a virgin.  And the townspeople seem to be simple archetypes at first, but many turn out to be more developed.  I particularly liked what Julie Berry did with the pretty, popular girl who is Judith's romantic rival.

ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME is an intense historical about a young woman's coming of age in adversity.  It's a book unlike any others I have read this year, powerfully feminist and told in beautiful language.

November 29, 2013

Review: Far Far Away

Far Far Away By Tom McNeal
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

At KidLitCon, I briefly spoke with Leila Roy of Bookshelves of Doom about the fact that I was struggling with my review of this book.  That led me to look up her review, which is brilliant.  You should read it after reading mine, so that mine won't pale so much in comparison.

I was wary of reading FAR FAR AWAY because the narrative conceit seemed so strange, almost arbitrary.  It is told by the ghost of Jacob Grimm, who can only be heard by a boy named Jeremy Johnson Johnson.  But it works.  Jacob is a part of the story, which is both like and unlike the fairytales he collected.  He is the one able to take action at the end of the story, the one who makes the plot work.  It's an odd technique, yes, but one that makes the book better.

I have made it clear in my reviews of the Raven Cycle books by Maggie Stiefvater that I love an atmosphere of doom.  FAR FAR AWAY has that in spades.  Nothing really bad happens to Jeremy for a long time.  I mean, he becomes an outcast and is in danger of losing his home, but nothing that it doesn't seem like your average protagonist can't escape.  And then that doom so long promised is brought, by the Finder of Occasions that Jacob set out to thwart.  FAR FAR AWAY is dark.

Another KidLitCon discussion was where to draw the line between middle grade and young adult.  I brought up this book, because there is no sex and the violence isn't of the punching, bullets flying sort.  But when FAR FAR AWAY gets intense, it is drawn out, scary, and leaves innocents helpless before a monster.  For the average reader, 14 and up is the best bet for age appropriateness.

For the readers who are up for a truly scary read, FAR FAR AWAY is a hugely rewarding read.  It draws disparate elements together in an interesting way, contains several satisfying emotional journeys, and is populated by characters that will grab your heart.  I very much understand why it's in the running for the National Book Award.

November 28, 2013

Mini-review and Haiku-off: My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending

My Sort of Fairy Tale Ending Final book in the My Very UnFairy Tale Life
By Anna Staniszewski
Available now from Sourcebooks
Review copy

Jenny the Adventurer travels to Fairy Land to rescue her parents, but discovers that things are going very wrong.  The population's magic is rationed, the laws are arbitrary, and travelers aren't allowed to leave.

I thought MY SORT OF FAIRY TALE ENDING was a fun, quick read for younger fantasy fans.  I thought it played well with various familiar fairy tale tropes, and loved that Jenny didn't have a love interest.  It's nothing overly different or edgy, but perfectly likeable.  It will, of course, have the most impact if you've read the first two books.  However, I haven't and thought it was still easy to follow along.

Today I'm happy to share a guest blog and challenge from author Anna Staniszewki:

One of the things I love about fairy tales is how easily they adapt to any format. No wonder we keep telling and retelling familiar tales when we can play with character, setting, and even format. So today, I thought we’d embrace this idea and have some fun with a fairy tale haiku-off.

What on earth is a fairy tale haiku-off and how does it work? It’s easy. Just think of your favorite tale, start counting syllables (the usual format is 5-7-5), and get haiku-ing!

Here’s my attempt:

First foot doesn’t fit.
Second foot, even tighter.
Third foot—smooth as glass.

It’s not likely to win any awards, but hey, I had fun. Now it’s your turn. Ready? Set. Haiku!

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of My Very UnFairy Tale Life and its sequels, My Epic Fairy Tale Fail and My Sort Of Fairy Tale Ending, all published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. Look for the first book in Anna’s next tween series, The Dirt Diary, in January 2014, and visit her at

November 27, 2013

Interview with Regina Brooks

I posted a little over a month ago about the YA Novel Discovery Contest.  There are a few more days to enter, so get cracking if you've written a YA novel!  I interviewed literary agent Regina Brooks of the Serendipity Literary Agency about the contest, her job, and the importance of diversity in YA.


1.    Since some of my readers might not know, what does a literary agent do?

An agent is a person who is essentially a manager for an author. They negotiate contracts, help authors understand trends, shop the book and prepare the project to entice editors or publishers. They are also responsible for ensuring you get royalty statements and mediating issues between the author and publisher such as during cover art disputes.

2.    Everyone I know in publishing has at least one book they love that never found its audience. What are some underrated gems from your career?

The Making of Dr. TrueloveThe Making of Dr. Truelove by Derrick Barnes. His book came out well before publishers, librarians, and teachers accepted edgy YA.

3.    A contest on the scale of the YA Novel Discovery Contest clearly takes a lot of time and effort to run.  Why did the Serendipity Literary Agency decide to start this contest?  What are some of the benefits of running the contest?

One huge benefit is that it’s a service to the YA author community.  Authors typically get really nervous about pitching whether it’s at a conference or through an online query letter. This contest allows an author’s idea to get in front of an agent without having to pitch.

The reason we only want to see the fist 250 words is because an author should be able to get an agents attention quickly and most agents who have been editing or ageing for years can tell very quickly whether it’s a project that so would be of interest.  Serendipity Literary Agency LLC., since its inception, has always been a place for the YA author to feel at home and it a great way to let more people know about our mission.

4. What are some of the other ways you find new writers to represent?

Besides queries, I find new authors at conferences, by referrals from other authors, through Twitter, and in classes that I teach.

5. There's a growing call online for diversity in literature.  You've represented Coretta Scott King, Stonewall, and LAMBDA award winners.  What makes diversity important to you?

Everyone should have a voice and whatever I can do to help bring as many voices into the marketplace as possible I’m excited to be able to do that. While diversity among young adult authors is growing, there still remains a critical need for more, especially given the changing demographics in the US. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with stories that challenge and inspire an interest in diversity.

November 26, 2013

Review: Broken

Broken By CJ Lyons
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy
Read my interviews (old) and (new) with CJ and my review of Lifelines

Sheltered Scarlet Killian wants a chance at the life of a normal high-school girl.  But she's barely convinced her overprotective parents that she'll be alright, especially her nurse stepmom.  But Scarlet has spent her life in the hospital due to a rare heart disease, and she wants to live.

I loved the depiction of Scarlet's high-school life.  It was a nice balance of the better parts of high school and the bad parts.  She gets bullied by some jocks due to her portable defibrillator, which she carries in a wheelie backpack, and her mother frequently popping in to make sure she's taking her vitamins.  (Did I mention her mom is the school nurse?)  At the same time, she makes some friends in her support group and biology class.  Two of them are cute boys, of course.  But Scarlet talks about her attractions to a friend and decides to pursue only one of the boys.

My main complaint is that the thriller elements take a bit too long to come into play.  It makes since on a character level, since Scarlet is quite naive.  But when the tension ratchets up in the last quarter, any less naive reader already has a good idea about what's going on.  Most of the actual suspense comes from whether Scarlet will reach the police in time.

I enjoyed BROKEN quite a bit, and didn't mind the shift in tone to a thriller too much because I knew it was coming.  Just go into the book aware that much of it reads like a straight contemporary.  And that's fine, because Scarlet's journey to independence is a good story.

Interview with CJ Lyons

I'd like to welcome author CJ Lyons back to the blog!  This New York Times bestselling author is making her YA debut with BROKEN, about a young girl with a heart condition beginning to attend high school after years in hospitals.  Stay tuned for my review later today.


1. Hi CJ!  You were the first author I interviewed for my blog, about your first book.  What has changed for you as an author since then?

CJ: I remember, hi again! LIFELINES was such a fun book to chat about. Hmm…what’s changed since that first book? I’ve written over twenty more (in fact, book #21, AFTER SHOCK, is being released January 7th), won a bunch of awards, hit #2 on the NYT Bestseller list, and am having the time of my life!

Perhaps most importantly was finding my YA voice—so much fun! I’m so looking forward to adding YA to my repertoire of Thrillers with Heart.

Broken 2. BROKEN is your first YA novel.  Did you know you were writing for a YA audience when you started writing, in the middle, or after you finished?

CJ: I’ve always loved reading YA and everyone kept telling me that as a pediatrician, I should write it. But honestly, I never found a story that I thought was worthy of my kids—my patients—until BROKEN, so I knew it was YA as soon as I began.

Writing for kids is tons tougher than writing for adults. Most grownups read for entertainment, but kids read for so much more. They want to vicariously experience the world and the choices they’ll be expected to make as adults as well as learn who they are and how they can fit into that larger universe once they’re the ones in charge.

3. Do you think you'll write more YA novels now that you've dipped your toes in the pool?

CJ: I just turned in my second YA Thriller and this one was so hard to write! It deals with two kids, Jesse and Miranda, being black mailed by a cyber-predator using capping (screen capture images) and how they find the courage to stand up to him (with the help of their parents). They go through hell and some of the things that happen to them were so painful to write that I was weeping as I typed—but then I was crying again when I wrote the ending as they rose above it all and triumphed.

Despite how difficult that book was to write, I loved it! Unlike my adult thrillers, I actually find that I can go deeper and darker emotionally with YA, which is a lot of fun—just goes to show that you can still have the thriller pacing and adrenalin rush without it all being car chases and explosions.

4. You have personal experience with Scarlet's rare disease, Long QT, through your niece.  Was it more difficult to write about a tough subject you're so close to?

CJ: Not the medical aspects, no. But waiting for my niece’s seal of approval before sending it to my editor—that was murder! Thankfully, she loved the book and really felt I’d nailed that whole first week of a new school vibe. Of course, she made me promise to tell everyone that she’s nothing like Scarlet, the main character of BROKEN. Scarlet is very sheltered and na├»ve, while the best adjectives to describe my niece are “fiercely independent.”

5. Now that you have a number of books available, do you have a favorite?

CJ: Actually, it’s DAMAGED, the second YA I mentioned above.  It’s honestly the best book I’ve ever written and as a pediatrician, the one I’m most proud of as I think it might actually save lives.

I thought it would be a stand alone, but after I finished it I realized there aren’t many books out there that tell you the rest of the story, the price to be paid for defeating the bad guys, so I’d love to tackle another book with Jesse and Miranda and show how their courage, strength, and relationship continue to evolve.

About CJ:
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-one novels, former pediatric ER doctor CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge Thrillers with Heart.

Winner of the International Thriller Writers’ coveted Thriller Award, CJ has been called a "master within the genre" (Pittsburgh Magazine) and her work has been praised as "breathtakingly fast-paced" and "riveting" (Publishers Weekly) with "characters with beating hearts and three dimensions" (Newsday).

Learn more about CJ's Thrillers with Heart at


I don't know about ya'll, but I'm already excited about DAMAGED and its sequel!  I love books that explore consequences.

November 25, 2013

Review: These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars First in the Starbound series
By Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner
Available December 10th from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

I misspoke in my intro to the fun fact I shared for the THESE BROKEN STARS tour.  I poked around Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner's sites today and realized that two more books are coming.  I'm not sure how I feel about this.  THESE BROKEN STARS is a complete adventure.  I'd enjoy spending more time with these characters, sure, but I'm not sure what story those future books will tell.

THESE BROKEN STARS is the story of Lilac LaRoux, the richest girl in the universe, and Tarver Merendsen, a war hero from a modest family.  When they first meet, they are instantly attracted, but Lilac must spurn Tarver or risk him coming to her father's attention in a very bad way.  This makes things super awkward when the survive the wreck of the Icarus together, the only two people in their escape pod.  Possibly the only survivors, period.

I loved how THESE BROKEN STARS develops.  There's the characters, first.  Lilac is more resourceful than she first seems, and I just adored her growth.  She's been repressed by her father for too long, and this is her chance to discover who she really is.  Tarver has the training to keep going and ensure their survival, but their journey forces him to face his weaknesses.  And it's just so lovely as Lilac and Tarver come to the point where they can talk about their initial understanding.  I adore communication as a key to romance.

I also loved how the science fiction elements are used.  The planet the Icarus crashes on seems innocuous at first, but as Lilac and Tarver soldier on, things start to get weird.  Hearing voices, hallucinating, things appearing out of thin air weird.  Figuring out what's up with the strange planet could be the key to Lilac and Tarver getting rescued.

I also liked that each chapter ends with Tarver debriefing his superiors.  It hints at the twists to come, but also shows that the official story he's giving varies greatly from what actually happened.  Why would he lie?  And when I say twists, I mean twists.  I'm still not sure I can believe that THESE BROKEN STARS went as far as it did.  I had to briefly stop and go, "Wait, that's not what really happened is it?  Oh my word, what happens next?"

I was enchanted by THESE BROKEN STARS.  It's been described as Titanic in space, but it's even better than that sounds.


These Broken Stars I'm happy to be participating in the tour for THESE BROKEN STARS by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner.  I don't do promo stops often, but as you'll see in my review later today, I loved THESE BROKEN STARS.  It's a standalone science fiction young adult novel that combines disaster, romance, and mad science.  How could I not love it?

As part of the tour, I have a fun fact to share with you all:

When Lilac and Tarver’s escape pod crash lands, they decide to hike for the main crash site of the Icarus, in the hope rescue craft will head there. This particular decision was inspired by a piece of sailing lore -- you never leave your boat until you have absolutely no choice, as a boat is easier to spot from the air -- even if it’s underwater -- than a tiny liferaft bobbing in the ocean. We thought the same wisdom would apply: rescuers would head for the big crash site, rather than trying to guess which of the tiny pieces of wreckage might hold humans.

You can also enter to win here!  You can win a hardcover or the grand prize of a marked-up galley, necklace, and other swag.  Full schedule here for more chances to win.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Bonus: If you pre-order from Malaprop's Bookstore, you can get a signed poster of the mondo gorgeous cover!  Don't wait, because THESE BROKEN STARS comes out December 10th.

November 22, 2013

Review: Tandem

Tandem Book One of the Many-Worlds trilogy
By Anna Jarzab
Available now from Delacorte Press (Penguin Random House)
Review copy
Read my review of The Opposite of Hallelujah

Sasha is an ordinary high school student until she's taken across worlds to impersonate a kidnapped princess.  She's none too thrilled about this, given that she wasn't asked and didn't even know that there were parallel worlds.

I thoroughly enjoyed TANDEM, Anna Jarzab's third novel and her first foray into science fiction/fantasy.  I liked that it built slowly.  The action is confined to Earth and Aurora, but Jarzab doesn't forget that her story is based on infinite possible worlds.  Despite the fairly straightforward nature of TANDEM, Jarzab has set up excellent potential for future hijinks in the sequels.  I trust her to do it well because she does it so neatly in TANDEM.  Jarzab pulled off my favorite trick: having the plot answer a question niggling in the back of my mind.

I liked Sasha, who is uncertain about what college she wants to go to or what she wants to study.  She's intelligent, but not driven.  In some ways, she responds well to having a set role as Princess Juliana, even if she hates the public, controlled life.  There is a love triangle, although not the worst sort.  Sasha and Thomas, Juliana's bodyguard who kidnapped Sasha,  have a mutual attraction.  Meanwhile, Juliana has a fiance who begins to fall for Sasha who he thinks is Juliana.  It's a little Shakespearean, with the layers of identities, which keeps it from feeling too route.

But really, the reason to read TANDEM is the cool plot and worldbuilding.  Jarzab doesn't forget character, but it doesn't drive everything to the point where the world is window dressing.  The politics are complicated and the dimensional disturbances are disturbing.  At times TANDEM felt like it was just moving pieces into place for later, but I find it hard to complain too much when it seems like the book is setting up something really fun.  My only complaint is with the villains, who go unnoticed by the heroes for quite awhile despite the fact they might as well have villain tattooed on their foreheads.

TANDEM is fun YA sci-fi.  It's on the softer edge, but it does offer some scientific explanations that show Jarzab did research quantum mechanics.  I liked that it had that scientific grounding even though the book felt like a fantasy.  It's that sort of genre blending that YA does so well.  There's even a bit of contemporary with the first part of the novel, which is a touch slow.  But by the end, TANDEM really rocks.

November 21, 2013

Review: Bloodstone

Bloodstone Book Two of the Rebel Angels series
By Gillian Philip
Available now from Tor (Macmillan)
Review copy
Read my review of Firebrand

When I read FIREBRAND, I had no expectations.  But when I read BLOODSTONE, I had high expectations because FIREBRAND was so good.  For the most part, it lived up to my expectations.

BLOODSTONE is set several hundred years after FIREBRAND ends.  Seth McGregor, his older brother Conal, and their allies have been living out their exile in the human world.  But as Conal's mother gets older, the time nears for them to return to the world of the Sithe and face their old enemy, Queen Kate NicNiven, again.

Several new characters are introduced in BLOODSTONE, including two who share narration duties with Seth.  There's Finn, Conal's niece, who doesn't know that she isn't human.  Then there's Jed, a thief, who is surprisingly good at seeing through the Veil and noticing the Sithe.  Unfortunately, that's a dangerous talent for humans.  I thought the changing views was a nice touch.  I like Seth quite a bit, but it's interesting to see his actions from a perspective that doesn't know what he's thinking.  Jed also adds a nice touch of humanity to the mix, since Gillian Philip's Sithe remain very inhuman.

The plot takes a little while to get going.  There is lots of maneuvering to get the characters into the right places.  Once it does get going, some of the characters make horrendous decisions.  Yes, they're getting played, but maybe if they didn't make it so easy . . . BLOODSTONE is beautifully written, exciting, and it's wonderful to spend time with these characters again.  But it did suffer a bit from second book syndrome.

That being said, quite a bit happens, from the surprising to the sad to the triumphant.  There's not an actual shortage of plot, it just meanders sometimes.  The main characters are left in a very interesting position at the end of BLOODSTONE, and I can't wait to see what happens next!  I hope the US edition of WOLFSBANE comes soon.  (I'm contenting myself with the fact that UK readers don't have the fourth and final book yet.)

I think this series has become one of my favorites.  It's got a tortured hero who doesn't love easily, fairies, thieves, loyalty, betrayal, murderous frog people . . . what more does a story need?

November 20, 2013

Mini Reviews: Some Cybils Reading

Anton and Cecil Anton and Cecil: Cats at Sea
By Lisa Martin and Valerie Martin
Illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Available now from Algonquin BFYR (Workman)
Review copy

Written by veteran adult author Valerie Martin and her niece Lisa Martin, ANTON AND CECIL: CATS AT SEA is a charming tale of two brothers who both end up traversing the sea.  Cecil is an avid sailor, but Anton is press ganged to catch rats, and Cecil must find him.

Animal fantasy can be done in several ways, and I liked how it was employed in ANTON AND CECIL.  The cats are sentient and can talk amongst themselves and with other animals, but can't actually talk to humans.  I thought this one was a fun little read, and given that there is a subtitle, suspect that it might be the beginning of a series.  I'd welcome more books about these brothers.

Last Enchanter The Last Enchanter
Book Two of the Celestine Chronicles
By Laurisa White Reyes
Available now from Tanglewood Press
Review copy

THE LAST ENCHANTER is the sequel to THE ROCK OF IVANORE, and I definitely wished that I had read that first.  I picked up most of the details, but I was confused about some bits, like why Marcus wasn't invited to court with his brother Kelvin, since he should be in line for the throne as well.

However, I still enjoyed THE LAST ENCHANTER.  I wish the storyline about Lael, a childhood friend who tags along with Marcus when he sets out to warn his brother about an assassination threat, was better incorporated.  It seemed like an attempt to shoehorn in a female character and a romance.  I'm always up for more female characters, but it could've been a touch smoother.

THE LAST ENCHANTER is a good pick for young fans of traditional fantasy, with the caveat that the series should be read in order.

Mickey Price Mickey Price: Journey to Oblivion
By John P. Stanley
Available now from Tanglewood Press
Review copy

Mickey Price and several kids under thirteen, each with their own talent, are suddenly recruited for a space camp.  There is, of course, something else going on - the reader will enjoy being suspicious with Jonah, one of Mickey's fellow campers.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in MICKEY PRICE: JOURNEY TO OBLIVION is the unnecessary frame story, where a grown-up Mickey tells the book to his kids.  It's awkward when the book switches back to the frame, and makes little sense, because the story changes point of view fairly frequently.

 Kids into space will probably enjoy this one.  There's lots of information about the space program, somewhat outdated since the book is set in 1977.

The Alchemist War The Alchemist War
Book One of the Time-Tripping Faradays
By John Seven
Illustrated by Craig Phillips
Available now from Capstone
Review copy

I'll admit to being very disappointed that there wasn't an actual war between alchemists in THE ALCHEMIST WAR.  The title and cover promise more action than the book delivers.  The beginning, with Dawk and Hype causing accidental mayhem, is fairly lively.  Then it settles into a simple mystery about alchemy, with several time jumps that don't last long enough to actually add interest.

THE ALCHEMIST WAR isn't terrible, but it's very much aimed at beginning readers.  I think the subject would've been better served with a bit more depth.  Author John Seven does set up a villain for future entries in the series, which might add more conflict to the story.

(Side note: I found it very out that the chat-type communication the future people engage in has identifying names at the end.)

November 19, 2013

Review: World After

World After Book Two of Penryn & the End of Days
By Susan Ee
Available now from Skyscape (Amazon Publishing)
Review copy

I kept hearing good things about ANGELFALL, so I bought myself a copy.  Then I let it molder on my Kindle for awhile because I didn't really know what it was about or anything. That was only a good decision inasmuch as it meant when I read ANGELFALL I didn't have long to wait before reading WORLD AFTER.

Penryn & the End of Days is set in the world were an angelic apocalypse is happening.  The humans are majorly outclassed and dying out fast.  But, as Penryn discovered, the angels don't have much more clue what's going on.  But Penryn's real focus is on her family - crazy mom who is out of meds, sister who has been experimented on - and Raffe, her unlikely ally.  Penryn's just one of my absolute favorite characters.  She uses her head, but let's herself be guided by her heart.  And I love the way Susan Ee writes her fights - always thinking, always analyzing how she might be able to take down a bigger, stronger opponent.

I also love Raffe, so I was a little sad that there's less of him in WORLD AFTER.  Ee does come up with an ingenious way to involve him in the action and help Penryn gain the abilities she needs to reach her goals at the same time.  And when Raffe and Penryn reunite, it is so delicious and worth it.  The tension between the two of them catches fire and keeps smoldering.

But really, the focus of WORLD AFTER isn't romance.  It's horror, what with all the crazy monsters running around and the humans sometimes not acting much better than the monsters.  It's a survival story, and sometimes the people who survive are the hardest and coldest.  But it's also a tale of connection, and how the bonds people make with each other inspire heroism and offer the ability for humans to thrive.

I enjoyed the continued, slow build of just what is happening.  Penryn stumbles upon bits and pieces of angelic plans, and the more she learns, the more the enormity of what's going on falls into place.  At the same time, it offers hope.  If Penryn knows what she's up against, maybe she can stop it.  Her, Paige, her mom, and Raffe, possibly the most rag-tag army ever.

ANGELFALL and WORLD AFTER are just sheer fun, despite their dark subject matter.  There's something about this series that makes me giddy and excited.  I can't wait for book three - I sure hope it comes faster than WORLD AFTER did!  (ANGELFALL came out in 2011.  I mean, two years isn't that long, but it seems like most series release a book a year nowadays.)

November 18, 2013

Review: Dear Life, You Suck

Dear Life, You Suck By Scott Blagden
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy

If the title isn't enough to convince you to pick this book up, then this might not be the book for you.  But trust me: you're missing out on a real gem.  Scott Blagden's debut novel DEAR LIFE, YOU SUCK is the story of Cricket, who is about to age out of the boys' home he lives in.

Cricket is an amazing narrator.  His voice is absolutely absorbing, and plot relevant!  He's definitely a teenager, and shoots himself in the foot sometimes.  (I absolutely adored one scene where he realizes his actions caused him to miss out on an opportunity.)  He has anger issues, and is perhaps a bit too laid back about drug dealing.  At the same time, Cricket's got a lot of positives in his personality too, and he grows as a character throughout the story.  The first thing that really drew him to me as a reader is also what endears Cricket to his crush Wynona: he totally loves and cares for the younger kids in the home.  Aww.

Honestly, I don't have much to say about DEAR LIFE, YOU SUCK.  It fits into the vein of books like Dale Peck's SPROUT, Michael Hassan's CRASH AND BURN, and Andrew Smith's WINGER.  It's a realistic contemporary that deals with some of the harsher facts of life (and being a teen), as told through the eyes of a witty, talented young man.  But I really liked it.  There's so much personality in this novel, from the unconventional family to the sweet romance to the slightly melodramatic but fitting ending.

Therefore: love, love, love.

November 15, 2013

Review: Chasing Shadows (A More Diverse Universe)

Chasing Shadows By Swati Avasthi
Graphics by Craig Phillips
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy
Read my review from last year's Diversiverse

Today is the first day of the second annual A More Diverse Universe.  It lasts from November 15-17, and all you have to do to participate is write about a speculative fiction book by an author of color.

I've had CHASING SHADOWS in my to-read-and-review pile for about a month.  Charlotte reminded me about it in her reminder about this event.  Now, CHASING SHADOWS isn't straight-up speculative fiction.  It's a contemporary novel that incorporates elements of superhero comics and Hinduism in a very visceral way, which gives some passages the feeling of speculative fiction.

CHASING SHADOWS begins with Holly, Savitri, and Corey running across rooftops.  It's a tight-knit group: Holly and Sav are best friends, Sav and Corey are dating, and Holly and Corey are twins.  But it's when they get in their cars to go home that tragedy strikes - Corey is shot and killed and Holly ends up in a coma.  CHASING SHADOWS alternates between Sav and Holly's points of view, and Holly's point of view alternates between prose and graphic novel panels.  It's a wonderful effect that demonstrates her breaks from reality quite well.

I wasn't expecting to ugly cry throughout this book, but I did.  Both girls are extremely traumatized and CHASING SHADOWS is about Holly and Sav reclaiming their lives, their futures, and eventually their friendship.  Because yes, their relationship is under quite a bit of strain.  I particularly liked the way Swati Avasthi wove the cops' search for Corey's murderer into the girls' story.  Because Holly was shot and Sav got a better look at the guy, they are defined as only a victim and only a witness respectively.  But both girls are victims and witnesses, and those labels are important to their internal story, even if it doesn't help the case.

(Side note: I loved that Sav can't give a great physical description - white, not tall - but notices exactly how the guy walks because that's what is important to her as an athlete.)

Two graphic novels shape the girls' stories.  One is a series about the Leopardess, a heroine Holly admires.  The other is a telling of the legend that gave Sav her name.  The girls are both inspired by these comics and shamed by them, feeling guilty because they weren't fast or clever or something enough to save Corey.  Holly's reality is distorted by them, the imagery and iconography bleeding into her waking world.  It's a very interesting look at the way that fiction can shape lives.  And, in the case of Sav, it's very clear how important her collection of comics starring Indians is to her and the ways it shaped her childhood.

CHASING SHADOWS is a real gut-punch of a novel.  It's dark, and heartbreaking, and the triumphs are tempered by tragedy.  It's also, I think, the book I wanted when I read WHAT WE SAW AT NIGHT.  The freerunning and the mystery are incorporated better into the characters' story, as is the Chicago setting.  I don't think I've ever read a book quite like CHASING SHADOWS, and it's more than just the inventive format that makes me say that.  This is a book well worth reading.

November 14, 2013

Review: The Naturals

The Naturals By Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Available now from Miramax (Disney Hyperion)
Review copy
Read my review of Raised by Wolves

Jennifer Lynn Barnes is one of those authors that routinely has interesting new books coming out but has never found mainstream success.  Personally, I'm very fond of her work.  She's not someone who comes to mind when I'm making favorites lists, but I've never been disappointed by one of her books.

THE NATURALS is the story of Cassie, a seventeen-year-old girl who is a natural at profiling, who joins a group of teens at the FBI who have their own natural special abilities that can be used to solve crimes.  They each have their own reason for wanting to spend their days studying serial killers, statistics, and other related topics.  Cassie is driven by the unsolved murder of her mother, whose body was never found.

Obviously, that becomes relevant to the case the teens find themselves pursuing.

What really makes THE NATURALS work is the characters.  Cassie falls into a love triangle with Michael and Dean, but it doesn't seem forced.  They're attractive, intelligent guys and while they're both a bit standoffish at first, they explain their reasons and are generally perfectly nice to her.  The other girls, Lia and Sloane, both develop on their own.  Cassie becomes closer to Sloane, and not just because they're roommates.  All five teens have their own personalities.  It made me kind of sad that THE NATURALS is a standalone, because I'd like to see how their relationships would develop.

I'm totally not sad it's a standalone.  More standalones!

As for the detecting, it could use a little work.  THE NATURALS has a villain POV, a trope I'm not hugely fond of.  In this case, I don't think it really added or detracted from the story.  There are a few gory moments in those passages that might turn off more sensitive readers.  The kids aren't experts, of course, despite their abilities, but I wished they'd contributed more to finding out who the killer is.  The identity is a plot twist instead of a mystery solved by the characters.  That keeps things exciting, but I found it left satisfying after I finished.

THE NATURALS is a quick, fun read that will appeal to fans of ensemble procedurals.  I like that it doesn't resolve absolutely everything and that while there is a love triangle, it comes in a distant second to catching murderers.  The premise is a little silly, but I like bought into it, especially since a large part of the book is the characters training to use their talents effectively.  This isn't Barnes' strongest book, but it probably has the broadest appeal.

November 13, 2013

Authors and Illustrators for the Philippines!

By now, we all know that Haiyan/Yolanda has devastated part of the Philippines.  (It went through the two biggest islands.)  There are many groups offering aid that you can donate to; I suggest that you do your research before giving your money.

Today, I'm highlighting two charity auctions relevant to this blog.  One, Authors for the Philippines, is auctioning off books, swag, critiques, and more.  The authors involved span all age groups, so there's something for everyone.  A few things I highly recommend:
The other, art for Haiyan, is selling art - and not just illustrations.  I see at least one pair of awesome heels.

Warning: These auctions might be expensive.

(Thanks to Tarie of Asia in the Heart for bringing these to my attention!)

Review: The Iliad

The Iliad Companion to The Odyssey
By Homer
Translation by Barry B. Powell
Foreward by Ian Morris
Available now from Oxford UP
Review copy

How do you review a new translation of a classic?  What do you focus on?  I've really struggled with this review, which I thought would be simple.

First, the story of THE ILIAD is as good as ever.  If you've never read it before, you might not know exactly where the story begins and ends since so many episodes (some told in THE ODYSSEY) have become associated with THE ILIAD.  If you've never read any version before, Barry B. Powell's translation is a good one.  The language is modern, although it doesn't try too hard to be modern.  There are plenty of footnotes giving insight into the meanings of certain lines, which helps alleviate the imperfections of translation.

I definitely feel that the introduction, where a new edition can really stand out, is aimed at new readers.  It covers the geography, history of Greek writing, and other historical tidbits that contextualize THE ILIAD and are helpful to understanding the story and the style.  There's nothing too deep, and Powell makes a baffling reference to the Dark Ages.  There is also a brief history of Homeric scholarship, covering such things as the Homeric question and the proof that THE ILIAD was composed orally.  It's a decent overview of the most important bits.

Powell also explains his choices about the translation, which is nice.  His goal was to hew as closely to the Greek as possible, but he left some of the familiar Latin names because it would be too distracting to change them.  It's definitely information that would help a student out.  I think the balance between faithfulness and modernization was well done, but your mileage may vary.  

I am a fan of the Robert Fagles' translation (1990), which still sounds contemporary and has a nice emphasis on action.  I know some people feel that Fagles takes too many liberties, but I like it.  The other modern translation people are likely to be familiar with, Robert Fitzgerald (1974), I don't like.  I find it way too stiff.  I felt that Powell's was closer to Fagles' in readability, which is a good thing.  But no two people translate THE ILIAD the same way, and there are plenty of differences.  I think it would be fun to read both simultaneously and compare their interpretations, but I personally don't have the time.

I though Powell's version of Homer's THE ILIAD was fresh and easy to read.  The introductory matter will have the most appeal to readers who are totally unfamiliar with THE ILIAD, but hey, it is just an introduction.  The footnotes are nice and the prose flows easily.  I'm sure many classes will adopt this text, especially after Powell's translation of THE ODYSSEY comes out next year.

November 12, 2013

Review: Bad Houses

Bad Houses By Sara Ryan
Art by Carla Speed McNeil
Available now from Dark Horse
Review copies

The two main characters of BAD HOUSES are Anne and Lewis, who both appear on the cover.  But there are a number of other important characters, many of whom have bits and pieces of their stories told, all living in Fallin, Ohio.

Lewis helps his somewhat overbearing mother out with her estate sale business, selling people's possessions after their deaths.  It is at one of those sales that he meets Anne, who longs to escape her mother's hoarding, which encroaches on her space after her mother meets a new man.  Their issues with their mothers and possessions are very different, but they drive both characters.  I liked the romance between Lewis and Anne, which is low key and helps both of them grow.

I also love how many stories are entwined throughout BAD HOUSES.  Often, the stories play out through possessions left behind.  We imbue the things we own with meaning.  There are bits about the history of the town, bits about Lewis's father (who he's never met), bits about the man who haggles for treasures at the estate sales and sells them for more in his shop.  It's all very easy to follow along, and if it ties together a bit too neatly, well, that makes for a better story.

YA readers might be familiar with Sara Ryan from her perennially popular book THE EMPRESS OF THE WORLD, one of the lesbian novels.  BAD HOUSES is her first graphic novel, but she's written shorter comics before and seems to understand the medium well.  Webcomics readers might be familiar with Carla Speed McNeil through the aboriginal SF graphic novel FINDER.  McNeil's art is a good fit for the book, managing the transitions between point of view well.  I like her clear, strong style, which reminds me of last year's Cybils winner Faith Erin Hicks.

BAD HOUSES is short but powerful.  It's a wonderful story about life, relationships, and stories left behind.  I think it's a particularly good choice for older teens who are working out their own relationships with their parents and what they'll do when they move out and make their own home.

KidLitCon, briefly

I attended KidLitCon this weekend, in beautiful Austin, TX.  I arrived to the precon a little late on Friday because I got to gabbing with a friend, but after that my weekend was all about the con.

I grabbed several books, dumped a bag of books I brought to pass on, and got to talking to people!  Then, on Saturday, I attended panels on topics such as critical reviewing, diversity, burnout, and middle grade books.  I've been thinking a lot of thoughts since then, about what changes I can implement on IBWB.  I'm definitely going to start maintaining more lists, per Lee Wind and Charlotte.

And honestly, it was just nice to meet people.  Jennifer Donovan, as it turns out, lives close to where I work.  Molly Blaisdell has a book coming out in 2014, PLUMB CRAZY, that sounds right up my alley.

Plus, there's nothing like a group of people that knows each other's blog names better than their real names.

If you have the opportunity to go next year, I highly recommend it.

November 11, 2013

Review: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Flora and Ulysses By Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by K.G. Campbell
Available now from Candlewick
Review copy

I bumped up FLORA & ULYSSES: The Illuminated Adventures on my reading list when it was long-listed for the National Book Award.  The shortlist has since been announced and FLORA & ULYSSES is not on it, but it is worth reading.

I've loved Kate DiCamillo's work since her breakout hit, BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE.  She's a tremendous author, with beautiful but accessible prose.  I liked that FLORA & ULYSSES used a graphic novel format for the illustrations instead of just static images.  It gives the novel a chance to play with point of view, and can also be used to entice readers to try a graphic novel or to try a prose novel.

However, I don't think the story is DiCamillo's best.  I'm quite fond of the central characters.  Flora is the sort of child to believe in strange things when they happen and a huge comic book fan.  When she sees Ulysses the squirrel gain superpowers by being sucked into a vacuum, she's ready to take him in and be friends.  I also liked her neighbors, the "temporarily blind" William Spiver, who is Flora's age and quite verbose, and his aunt Tootie, who takes a little while longer than the children to warm up to a poetry-writing squirrel.

But the story fell apart around Flora's parents.  Her relationship with her mother could be powerful, but her mother spends too long acting like a cartoon villain.  Meanwhile, her father compulsively introduces himself for no apparent reason.  I kept waiting for someone to  mention it within the story, but no one ever did.  To top it off, the plot is a little thin.  FLORA & ULYSSES feels like an origin story.  Although it would be a wonderful series, I think it is a standalone.

I thought FLORA & ULYSSES was wonderfully written and that the story was playful and exciting.  But it's not DiCamillo's best.  And to be fair to FLORA & ULYSSES, I have high expectations of her work.  I must add, however, that Ulysses' poetry is a highlight.  It's beautiful without being esoteric.


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